Shirley Valentine | Dramatic License Productions

Shirley 75

Playwright Willy Russell has created an absolute delight with “Shirley Valentine.”

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Long ago, singer Peggy Lee had a hit with a real downer of a song called, “Is That All There Is?” about life’s lack of meaning. She concludes that, indeed, there isn’t any more than existence, so “break out the booze and let’s keep dancing.” In the 1980s, Shirley Valentine (Teresa Doggett) asks the same question but comes to a quite different conclusion, which is why it’s such a joy spending a couple of hours with her at Dramatic License Productions.

Shirley is a 42-year-old Liverpool housewife who has had little satisfaction in her life. So little, in fact, that she remembers painting the kitchen as perhaps the happiest time she ever had with her lump of a husband, Joe, who is both demanding and dismissive. Since this is a one-person show, we don’t actually meet Joe (or anyone else of whom she speaks) but we feel like we do. We find her in the kitchen preparing his tea that absolutely must be ready when he walks in the door and since it’s Thursday, also must be steak, but on this day, it’s chips and egg. She did buy a steak, you see, but then gave it to her employer’s dog which, as the pet in a vegan household, apparently appreciated it much more than Joe would have anyway. As for Shirley, she’s talking to the wall this whole time as if it were a friend, which to her, it is.

When Shirley thinks about her family, she comes up empty all around. She married young and had two bratty children who have now moved out and she’s alone again except for Joe, which to hear her tell it is pretty much the same thing. She tells us about her unsuccessful school days when she was made to believe she was stupid, so she figured she deserved whatever life handed her. She has lived passively, not like her self-declared feminist friend, Jane, who, as it happens, has offered to stake Shirley to a two-week vacation to Greece. Seems Jane’s feminism is mostly talk though, since she really doesn’t want to go abroad alone. Shirley would love to travel but tells us she can’t leave Joe. She wanders off into other stories, most touchingly, one about a childhood classmate whose later life shocks her, as does a revelation that woman shares with her now.

As she goes on, it becomes clear that she just might take that trip, and when she returns to the stage after a break, she is dressed for travel with suitcases, passport, tickets and cash in hand. She shows us a beautiful kimono given her by the neighbor who it turns out isn’t a snob at all. The robe becomes a kind of talisman and totem for what Shirley will do and become, but right now, she just feels like throwing up with nervousness. In Act II, a suntanned woman on the beach puts down a magazine and says, “Bet you didn’t recognize me, did you?” And we almost do not. Shirley is changed utterly, so, of course, she tells us all about it. In a relatively short time, she has learned a lot, especially that time shouldn’t be unused because it’s just too wasteful to be given a life and then not live it fully.

Playwright Willy Russell has created an absolute delight with “Shirley Valentine.” Filled with funny stories and one-liners, we laugh a lot, but then Doggett can turn on a dime and make us feel her essential sadness so deeply that it’s hard not to cry right along with her. Director Lee Anne Mathews has helped the actor find even more dimensions to an already rich character than Doggett displayed when she did this play several years ago. That, too, was an excellent production, but it didn’t seem to dig as deeply into the woman’s psyche as this one does. Doggett is also an award-winning costume designer, so she gets credit for Shirley’s look, be it the drab housewife, the world traveler, or the relaxed beach version of the same woman. The scenic design, lights and sound add to the sense of place and time and are well-executed by Matthew Stuckel, Max Parrilla, and Michael B. Perkins. Peggy Knock has furnished Shirley’s working kitchen (she cooks the eggs while talking to us) realistically, right down to a box of Malt O’ Meal.

Teresa Doggett won the very first Kevin Kline Award during the six years they were presented (Best Supporting Actress) and the first St. Louis Theatre Circle Award (Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy). She is nominated in the same category this year, as well as another for costuming. Doggett is one of St. Louis’s very best actors, and if you miss her as Shirley Valentine, then you may well have missed the best performance of 2014, and yes, I know it’s only March. But, as Shirley would say, “our Teresa is just that good.”

“Shirley Valentine” runs through March 16, 2014. You may contact dramaticlicenseproductions.org | Andrea Braun

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